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How Brie Larson brought Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle to life

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Jake Giles Netter/Lionsgate

In 2005, writer Jeannette Walls published her memoir The Glass Castle, chronicling her relationship with her strange, impoverished, and utterly dysfunctional family. The book was an instant bestseller, and now, Walls’ story is coming to the big screen.

“So many people connect to this book,” director Daniel Destin Cretton says. “Most people don’t even come close to experiencing the extremes that she did, but everyone has their own s— in their life, and most of us just bury it. But I think there’s a loneliness that comes with that and a feeling of isolation. And reading something like this makes me think, ‘I can talk about my stuff too, and it doesn’t make me weird.’ That feeling of loneliness kind of goes away through reading this book, and I hope it does that for people who watch the movie as well.”

Like the book, the film version of The Glass Castle traces Walls’ complicated childhood, from her father breaking her out of a hospital after she burned herself cooking hot dogs as a toddler to moving to New York to escape her family — only for her mother and father to follow her there. Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts star as her parents, Rex and Rose Mary, but Jeannette is played throughout her life by three different actresses: Chandler Head, Ella Anderson, and, finally, Brie Larson (who previously starred in Cretton’s 2013 indie breakout Short Term 12).

Larson sat down with EW to talk about how she approached Walls’ unconventional story — and what she learned from Walls herself.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it about Jeannette Walls’ story that really fascinated you?
BRIE LARSON: It’s interesting because it’s obviously a very specific story, but there’s so much in it that feels so universal to people. She asks these bigger questions about parent and child relationships that are really complicated. I think ultimately what I love about it is that it’s about humans being survivors. No matter what, we get through it. It’s the idea that everything is kind of mashed together: All of life is tangled up in one little knotted chain, and you can either throw all of it away, or you embrace all of it. You can’t pick and choose what parts of life you want to have.

You watch this family, and yes, there’s complete chaos, but there’s also so much love and humor and all of these great things, too. And Jeannette [in the film] has been moving away from that, but over the course of the film, you realize that no matter what, no matter how hard she wants to run away or change her hair, at the end of the day, this is who she is and you’ve gotta own it.

One of the things I love about the way Jeannette writes is how when she talks about her family, it’s not black and white. It’s extremely complicated. They can be selfish and cruel, but also extremely kind and loving. How did you approach that complicated tone in the film?
Well, that’s my favorite tone ever. [laughs] Because I really question the idea that we put films in these categories just because it makes life easier, right? Like, “This is a drama!” or, “This is a comedy!” Would you say that about your life, if someone was like, “What genre is your life?” It’s like, “Oh god, it’s everything!” It’s comedy, and it’s suspense, and that’s what life is.

That’s a huge part of what Destin likes, as well: Life can go from being the most painful moment to someone cracking a joke, and it becomes this palpably hilarious moment in the face of something terrible. So, riding that line is always what I enjoy doing, and we had such a great cast that it made it very easy to finagle that tone.

How much time did you spend talking to Jeannette?
I think it was over the course of many months. We sort of had an ongoing email chain that went back and forth. Like very long emails, back and forth. And then we’d jump on the phone and do a Skype call. Sometimes I’d do a Skype call with Ella, who was playing one of the younger Jeannettes, because a huge part of this is connecting the dots as you watch this family grow, and we all had to be the same Jeannette. Yes, she’s growing up, but there has to be something in our hearts that links us together. So there was a lot of hanging out together and me observing the kids and figuring out what their mannerisms were so I could mimic them for when I played Jeannette.

It seems like very few people can relate to the specifics of Jeannette’s story, but everyone can relate to having specific experiences with their family and recognizing how it shaped them.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, that’s the thing about film in general that I’ve found so reassuring and so exciting. It was a similar experience with Room. I had never met anyone who had gone through the exact experience that was depicted in Room, but a lot of people could pull certain things from it that really struck them and made them rethink their relationships or their childhood. And I think that’s such a powerful tool. This movie really deals with reflection and memory and how in our childhood, we have a very simplistic way of looking at things. As we get older, we’re able to see more of the complexity of it and how wonderful and important it is to embrace where we’ve been instead of feeling shame or embarrassment.

When you were talking to Jeannette and learning about her story, was there anything you learned from her that really surprised you?
You know, I don’t know if this necessarily surprises me, but the thing that I think about all the time is that she has no anger or bitterness towards her family at all. She just loves them. She loves them simply and completely and has completely forgiven them. And I think that that is such a beautiful quality to have and one that we could all work on. We could all use more forgiveness.

I know that between you and Destin and a lot of the crew members, this film was made by a lot of the same people who worked on Short Term 12. What was it like to reunite with all these people on a totally different story?
It made me emotional very quickly because I was able to see very clearly how far we’ve come! I mean, Short Term was a very small film with a very limited budget, where I was wearing my own clothes, and we were packing up the lunch from craft services to eat for dinner because we were all so broke. We were really down in it together. And a couple years later, for us to all be united again, and to really see how much all of us have grown creatively and how much more understanding and control we have over our craft and that we have more time and more money and more space to explore our creativity together, it’s just a really wonderful, inspiring thing.